Talking to the Taliban

Negotiations are the only way forward in Afghanistan. But that doesn't mean they will be easy -- or that the more pragmatic wing of the Taliban will have the upper hand.


As the United States accelerates the withdrawal of its combat troops from Afghanistan, continued violence makes the transfer of military gains to Afghan forces by 2014 an increasingly fraught prospect. Regular assassinations of civilians and the increased use of dumb, pressure-plate-operated roadside bombs — more likely to hit a minibus than an armoured personnel carrier — mean that the number of civilian dead and injured will likely remain a heavy burden on Afghan society long after coalition troops are withdrawn. And while the worst predictions of a full-blown civil war are unlikely to prove correct, there is little doubt that more blood will flow before Afghanistan begins to stabilize. Ultimately, there can be no durable peace without a political resolution to the conflict — and that means dealing with the Taliban.

The big question mark, however, is whether they are truly interested in a political process. Since their emergence in the 1990s, the Taliban’s traditions and experience overwhelmingly suggest a preference for the black and white of violent action over the nuance of political negotiation. There is also plenty of reason to suppose the Taliban may just wait until coalition combat troops leave Afghanistan in the hands of an ill-equipped and less capable national force and then resume their violent campaign. Still, there are signs that certain factions within the Taliban may have learned from their past mistakes and adopted a more conciliatory approach. Might this faction win out and successfully negotiate a political deal with the U.S. and Afghan governments?

So far, the signals have been mixed. In February, it seemed that everything was set for the Taliban to open an office in Qatar and begin serious talks with the United States. At issue would be a peaceful transition to a constitutionally based and al Qaeda-free Afghanistan, with neither side declaring victory nor acknowledging defeat. The tireless Tayyeb Agha, a close confidant of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, appeared to have established himself as a trusted interlocutor for both sides, and small signs of optimism began to show.

But the Taliban suspended the dialogue in March, when the United States failed to release two of five named Taliban prisoners held in the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. Their release had been planned as a sign of intent by the United States that would have been matched by the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who turned up in Taliban hands in June 2009 and remains the only U.S. soldier in their custody. Various considerations delayed the execution of this plan, including domestic opposition in the United States, internal tensions in the Taliban, the Afghan government’s suspicion of the process, Pakistan’s reluctance to endorse Qatar as the site for further negotiations, and Qatar’s own desire for clarity about its proposed role.

Despite these complicating factors, something approximating this deal might well go forward in the future and, indeed, it seems that all key players are to some extent waiting on the others to make the necessary moves. Yet it is far from clear what will happen next, particularly because there are substantial asymmetries between the major parties’ demands.

The objectives of the United States mirror those of the international community more broadly: The Taliban should pursue their objectives through political rather than military means, they should accept the Afghan constitution, and they should renounce al Qaeda. For their part, the Taliban demand that all foreign troops leave Afghanistan, that all Taliban prisoners be released, and that the international community recognize the legitimacy of their movement and lift the U.N. sanctions first imposed on them in 1999.

As for the other key players, whose explicit or tacit agreement will be essential to the success of any agreement, the Afghan government wants a political process under its direction that will allow a continued share of power for those who hold it now. The Pakistani government wants to have a seat at the table, or at least full sight of any negotiations, so it can continue to promote its interests in having a government in Kabul that it can influence, or at the very least one that is not susceptible to the influence of India. Islamabad also wants a clearer understanding of what the U.S. sees as the end game in Afghanistan. Finally, Qatar wants to play a supporting role without being caught in the middle if something goes wrong. While some of these objectives are complementary, others are not. Some are mutually exclusive.

While the United States has signalled that it would like to find ways to restart the discussion process as soon as possible, regardless of domestic considerations in the run up to the November presidential elections, the Taliban’s position is harder to read. Apart from the key issues of who goes first and the subsequent sequencing of an agreement, the main difficulties concern Taliban acceptance of the current Afghan constitution and their refusal to negotiate with the current Afghan government. The Taliban’s demand for the withdrawal of all foreign forces, including those foreseen in the Strategic Partnership Agreement signed by President Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai in May — as well as their public renunciation of al Qaeda — are also potentially problematic, but not impossible to resolve. The Taliban may well see some advantage in having a limited contingent of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, at least in the short term, to help stabilize the country by acting as observers and guarantors of any agreement; and it should be relatively straightforward for the Taliban to build on statements they have already made about ensuring that no one (read: al Qaeda) should use Afghan territory to threaten the security of any other state.

Interviews with senior Taliban reported by the long-time Afghan expert Michael Semple in the New Statesman in early July, and by Anatol Lieven in the Financial Times later that month, suggest that the Taliban leadership is ready to sit down and talk.

But for every positive sign, there has been a contradictory and negative one, usually in the form of a stiff denial published on the Taliban website.

So what is going on? The answer is that the Taliban are not a homogenous movement. They do not have a single policy towards negotiation or a united vision for how Afghanistan should look in the future. The older Taliban hands, many of whom were only in their twenties when they held power in Kabul in the late 1990s, have grown wiser. They recognize their mistakes and understand that Afghanistan cannot be ruled by dictate or in a fashion that fails to take into account the ethnic divisions and cultural traditions of its people. Although local systems of dispute resolution — where everyone comes out a loser as well as a winner — and traditions of ethnic co-existence may have eroded during nearly 40 years of war, it is clear to this group of senior Taliban that fundamentalist Islam cannot be imposed throughout Afghanistan in 2014 any more than Marxism could be imposed by Nur Mohammed Taraki or Hafizullah Amin in the 1970s.

This group favors negotiations as a way to regain influence in Kabul before the country returns to serious internal discord in the absence of international troops and also as a way of reaffirming the Taliban’s political objectives, which have become increasingly obscured by local interests. Additionally, the pragmatists possibly think they have a better chance of securing an early and satisfactory outcome by negotiating with international actors, in particular the United States, than with the fractious regime in Kabul. The Taliban pragmatists probably see benefit in having some international ownership of an agreement and therefore some guarantees for its implementation. As for al Qaeda, these pragmatists have no diehard loyalty to a movement that has brought such trouble to their doorstep, has grown weak, and retains few of the leaders that they knew personally in the days of fighting the Northern Alliance.

But the pragmatists are not the only group of Taliban leaders, and they have limited support among the rank and file whose commitment to any agreement will be essential to those on the other side of the negotiating table. This second group comprises Taliban commanders who have an interest in negotiation only as a way to reduce military pressure, enabling them to conserve their strength and consolidate their authority in the areas of Afghanistan they currently control. This group looks forward to the real fight beginning after the withdrawal of foreign forces in 2014. Its members are not prepared to compromise with other Afghan power centres until they have tested their strength. They see no reason to hurry.

A third group of Taliban, with support in particular from the younger foot soldiers — many of whom grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan and have known only war in Afghanistan — has no interest in any sort of negotiation, now or in the future. This group would be appalled at the thought of renouncing links with al Qaeda, the standard bearer of a global movement of which they see themselves a part. These fighters don’t view themselves as Pashtun insurgents so much as holy warriors. And there are plenty of mid-level Taliban commanders, often indistinguishable from local warlords, who are more than ready to exploit their naïve enthusiasm.

There is only value in the United States and/or the Afghan government negotiating with the Taliban if such negotiations are likely to lead, in some measure, to the restoration of peace, stability, and security in Afghanistan. It would be counterproductive to grant concessions that, if not matched by the other side, might only make these objectives more remote. Proceeding with negotiations, then, is ultimately a gamble for the United States — and one that will likely turn on the position of Mullah Omar, the “leader of the faithful” and the only Taliban official with the authority to impose policy on the movement.

So far, Mullah Omar has not revealed where his sympathies lie, and perhaps with good reason. One of his methods of control is to remain aloof from the Taliban’s internal debates and physically remote from their meetings. His directives are received through tapes or public messages that typically coincide with religious festivals — and they usually provide something for everyone. Although this means that he has endorsed the idea of talks, he has not made clear his objective in doing so. For the pragmatists, it is to end the war and re-establish a measure of Taliban influence across the country; for the “talk of peace but prepare for war” group, it is to win time and encourage the removal of the foreigners; for the puritan ideologues, it is a way to obtain the release of prisoners without giving up anything in return. If he defines his objectives too soon, Mullah Omar will risk losing the backing of one or other group of his supporters, weakening his authority and risking the cohesion of the movement. If he moves too late, however, he will have to take his chances against his Afghan opponents without having established precisely what the Taliban are fighting for.

For now, it appears to be in the interest of both the United States and the Taliban to continue to feel their way back towards talks, testing ideas against each other and against the reactions of their supporters. The United States and the Taliban, at least, face a common problem: Explaining what they have achieved in more than 10 years of war —  and why it makes sense to stop now. Both will have to be able to call any agreement a victory. But for the international community as a whole, victory can be defined more easily. It would simply be an end to the bloodshed and an opportunity for Afghanistan to take a quieter place in global affairs.

Richard Barrett is a fellow at The Soufan Center and director of the Global Strategy Network. His report "Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees" was published on Oct. 24. @rmdbarrett

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